Where would summer be without a series of reading blogs? This year's subject, "a book for the beach", might seem limiting, but there are as many sorts of beach holiday as there are books to enjoy on them.
For someone who, like me, spends their working life reading in straight lines – what's new, is it any good? – holidays offer the luxury of reading in circles. It was just such a loop that brought me back to Wide Sargasso Sea, one of the great prequels of world literature.
It began a couple of years ago with Jenny Uglow's wonderful biography of the 18th-century engraver Thomas Bewick, whose History of British Birds is the book with which the 10-year-old Jane Eyre diverts herself behind the curtains at Gateshead Hall, until it is hurled at her head by her odious cousin.
I'd always assumed that Jane was escaping into beautiful avian images, but it turns out that a far more gothic imagination is hidden between the chapters, in a series of sinister miniature engravings. I got out my old copy of Jane Eyre, and there was the evidence: "The fiend pinning down the thief's pack behind him"; "the black horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows."
How had I never noticed this before? Could it be that the poor little orphan of my memory was harbouring vengeful fantasies? Had I all along been mistaking a gothic character for a Dickensian one? It's with assumptions such as this that Jean Rhys plays in her fabulously atmospheric exploration of the life of the first Mrs Rochester.
Antoinette Conway is an orphan, too, as a Creole heiress marooned in Jamaica, in the ruins of a slaving culture that has made her a pariah to her black neighbours. When she is a child, the family mansion is torched and a girl whom she wants to be her friend throws a rock at her head – incidents that resound with distorted echoes of Jane Eyre.
There is nothing idyllic about life on this island, and Dominican-born Rhys is brilliant at evoking the swarming oppressiveness of relentless sunshine. Where Brontë's gothic is cold and dark, Rhys's sweats and swelters. "I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look," says Antoinette, who nevertheless finds razor grass, red ants and snakes "better, better than people".
Into this hallucinatory inversion of an island paradise blunders Edward Rochester, a malarial younger son in search of a fortune, who picks up the narrative in the second section with his own sense of alienation: "Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near."
Rhys's triumph is to put a modernist palette to the service of the 19th-century imagination: she lets us see the colours while also demonstrating to us how they appear to Rochester.
Published in 1966, this isn't simply a prequel but a deeply political novel in its own right, in which names echo with a traumatic history that can barely be remembered, let alone mentioned: a town called Massacre, a boy called Disastrous, and Antoinette herself, who is cruelly stripped of her illusions by a husband who insists on calling her Bertha.
"Him not a bad man, even if he love money, but he hear so many stories he don't know what to believe," says Antoinette's witchy old nanny, Christophine, who dispenses country wisdom along with the rum she uses to sedate her "doudou". Christophine is the nearest the novel gets to a presiding spirit: she too is an outsider, who was brought to Jamaica as a wedding present for Antoinette's mother in the years before emancipation. She practises "obeah" (voodoo) and her motives and loyalties are always mysterious.
By concocting a "love potion" to be administered to Edward, she effectively sets up one of the novel's most devastating scenes, in which he reprises the atrocities of colonialism by casually seducing the servant girl who nurses him back to health, as his drugged wife sleeps in the next room. "I looked into her lovely meaningless face," he says. " … In the morning I felt differently. Another complication. Impossible. And her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought." Has a single word ever been more powerfully deployed than that adjective "meaningless"?
In prose becoming steadily more queasy and disorientating, we witness a disintegration that is also a disinheritance. The final section is narrated by Bertha from her attic in Thornfield Hall, where she is brutally constrained by Charlotte Brontë's character Grace Poole. In the flicker of a candle on a draughty stairwell, the two novels come together, and two very different sorts of gothic merge into one.
Concise, chilling and richly evocative, this is a beach read for people who think of holidays as a time to make connections. You don't have to be in the Caribbean.
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